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  • 1904
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They moved uneasily on their stools, and some rubbed stubbly chins with perplexed, uncertain fingers, and they all glowered at the speaker. He was uncomfortable, this fellow.

“Well, there mayn’t be as much gold up here as men think, but there’s more hope than anywhere on earth.”

“To hell with hope; give me certainty,” says Salmon P.

“Exactly. So you shuffle the cards, and laugh down the five-cent limit. You’ll play one last big game, and it’ll be for life this time as well as fortune.”

“Cheerful cuss, ain’t he?” whispered Schiff.

“They say we’re a nation of gamblers. Well, sir, the biggest game we play is the game that goes on near the Arctic Circle.”

“What’s the matter with Wall Street?”

“‘Tisn’t such a pretty game, and they don’t play for their lives. I tell you it’s love of gambling brings men here, and it’s the splendid stiff game they find going on that keeps them. There’s nothing like it on earth.”

His belated enthusiasm deceived nobody.

“It don’t seem to have excited you much,” said Mac.

“Oh, I’ve had my turn at it. And just by luck I found I could play another–a safer game, and not bad fun either.” He sat up straight and shot his hands down deep in the pockets of his mackinaws. “I’ve got a good thing, and I’m willing to stay with it.”

The company looked at him coldly.

“Well,” drawled Potts, “you can look after the fur trade; give me a modest little claim in the Klondyke.”

“Oh, Klondyke! Klondyke!” Benham got up and stepped over Kaviak on his way to the fire. He lit a short briarwood with a flaming stick and turned about. “Shall I tell you fellows a little secret about the Klondyke?” He held up the burning brand in the dim room with telling emphasis. The smoke and flame blew black and orange across his face as he said:

“_Every dollar that’s taken out of the Klondyke in gold-dust will cost three dollars in coin_.”

A sense of distinct dislike to Benham had spread through the company–a fellow who called American enterprise love of gambling, for whom heroism was foolhardy, and hope insane. Where was a pioneer so bold he could get up now and toast the Klondyke? Who, now, without grim misgiving, could forecast a rosy future for each man at the board? And that, in brief, had been the programme.

“Oh, help the puddin’, Colonel,” said the Boy like one who starts up from an evil dream.

But they sat chilled and moody, eating plum-pudding as if it had been so much beans and bacon. Mac felt Robert Bruce’s expensive education slipping out of reach. Potts saw his girl, tired of waiting, taking up with another fellow. The Boy’s Orange Grove was farther off than Florida. Schiff and Hardy wondered, for a moment, who was the gainer for all their killing hardship? Not they, at present, although there was the prospect–the hope–oh, damn the Trader!

The Colonel made the punch. O’Flynn drained his cup without waiting for the mockery of that first toast–_To our Enterprise_–although no one had taken more interest in the programme than O’Flynn. Benham talked about the Anvik saw-mill, and the money made in wood camps along the river. Nobody listened, though everyone else sat silent, smoking and sulkily drinking his punch.

Kaviak’s demand for some of the beverage reminded the Boy of the Christmas-tree. It had been intended as a climax to wind up the entertainment, but to produce it now might save the situation. He got up and pulled on his parki.

“Back ‘n a minute.” But he was gone a long time.

Benham looked down the toast-list and smiled inwardly, for it was Klondyked from top to bottom. The others, too, stole uneasy glances at that programme, staring them in the face, unabashed, covertly ironic–nay, openly jeering. They actually hadn’t noticed the fact before, but every blessed speech was aimed straight at the wonderful gold camp across the line–not the Klondyke of Benham’s croaking, but the Klondyke of their dreams.

Even the death’s head at the feast regretted the long postponement of so spirited a programme, interspersed, as it promised to be, with songs, dances, and “tricks,” and winding up with an original poem, “He won’t be happy till he gets it.”

Benham’s Indian had got up and gone out. Kaviak had tried to go too, but the door was slammed in his face. He stood there with his nose to the crack exactly as a dog does. Suddenly he ran back to Mac and tugged at his arm. Even the dull white men could hear an ominous snarling among the Mahlemeuts.

Out of the distance a faint answering howl of derision from some enemy, advancing or at bay. It was often like this when two teams put up at the Big Chimney Camp.

“Reckon our dogs are gettin’ into trouble,” said Salmon P. anxiously to his deaf and crippled partner.

“It’s nothing,” says the Trader. “A Siwash dog of any spirit is always trailing his coat”; and Salmon P. subsided.

Not so Kaviak. Back to the door, head up, he listened. They had observed the oddity before. The melancholy note of the Mahlemeut never yet had failed to stir his sombre little soul. He was standing now looking up at the latch, high, and made for white men, eager, breathing fast, listening to that dismal sound that is like nothing else in nature–listening as might an exiled Scot to the skirl of bagpipes; listening as a Tyrolese who hears yodelling on foreign hills, or as the dweller in a distant land to the sound of the dear home speech.

The noise outside grew louder, the air was rent with howls of rage and defiance.

“Sounds as if there’s ’bout a million mad dogs on your front stoop,” says Schiff, knowing there must be a great deal going on if any of it reached his ears.

“You set still.” His pardner pushed him down on his stool. “Mr. Benham and I’ll see what’s up.”

The Trader leisurely opened the door, Salmon P. keeping modestly behind, while Kaviak darted forward only to be caught back by Mac. An avalanche of sound swept in–a mighty howling and snarling and cracking of whips, and underneath the higher clamour, human voices–and in dashes the Boy, powdered with snow, laughing and balancing carefully in his mittened hands a little Yukon spruce, every needle diamond-pointed, every sturdy branch white with frost crystals and soft woolly snow, and bearing its little harvest of curious fruit–sweet-cake rings and stars and two gingerbread men hanging by pack-thread from the white and green branches, the Noah’s Ark lodged in one crotch, the very amateur snow-shoes in another, and the lost toys wrapped up, transfigured in tobacco-foil, dangling merrily before Kaviak’s incredulous eyes.

“There’s your Christmas-tree!” and the bringer, who had carried the tree so that no little puff of snow or delicate crystal should fall off, having made a successful entrance and dazzled the child, gave way to the strong excitement that shot light out of his eyes and brought scarlet into his cheeks. “Here, take it!” He dashed the tree down in front of Kaviak, and a sudden storm agitated its sturdy branches; it snowed about the floor, and the strange fruit whirled and spun in the blast. Kaviak clutched it, far too dazed to do more than stare. The Boy stamped the snow off his mucklucks on the threshold, and dashed his cap against the lintel, calling out:

“Come in! come in! let the dogs fight it out.” Behind him, between the snow-walls at the entrance, had appeared two faces–weather-beaten men, crowding in the narrow space, craning to see the reception of the Christmas-tree and the inside of the famous Big Chimney Cabin.

“These gentlemen,” says the Boy, shaking with excitement as he ushered them in, “are Mr. John Dillon and General Lighter. They’ve just done the six hundred and twenty-five miles from Minook with dogs over the ice! They’ve been forty days on the trail, and they’re as fit as fiddles. An’ no yonder, for Little Minook has made big millionaires o’ both o’ them!”

Millionaires or not, they’ll never, either of them, create a greater sensation than they did that Christmas Day, in the Big Chimney Cabin, on the bleak hillside, up above the Never-Know-What. Here was Certainty at last! Here was Justification!

Precious symbols of success, they were taken by both hands, they were shaken and wildly welcomed, “peeled,” set down by the fire, given punch, asked ten thousand questions all in a breath, rejoiced over, and looked up to as glorious dispellers of doubt, blessed saviours from despair.

Schiff had tottered forward on bandaged feet, hand round ear, mouth open, as if to swallow whole whatever he couldn’t hear. The Colonel kept on bowing magnificently at intervals and pressing refreshment, O’Flynn slapping his thigh and reiterating, “Be the Siven!” Potts not only widened his mouth from ear to ear, but, as O’Flynn said after, “stretched it clane round his head and tyed it up furr jy in a nate knot behind.” Benham took a back seat, and when anybody remembered him for the next hour it was openly to gloat over his discomfiture.

John Dillon was one of those frontiersmen rightly called typically American. You see him again and again–as a cowboy in Texas, as a miner or herdsman all through the Far West; you see him cutting lumber along the Columbia, or throwing the diamond hitch as he goes from camp to camp for gold and freedom. He takes risks cheerfully, and he never works for wages when he can go “on his own.”

John Dillon was like the majority, tall, lean, muscular, not an ounce of superfluous flesh on his bones, a face almost gaunt in its clearness of cut, a thin straight nose, chin not heavy but well curved out, the eye orbit arched and deep, a frown fixed between thick eyebrows, and few words in his firm, rather grim-looking mouth. He was perhaps thirty-six, had been “in” ten years, and had mined before that in Idaho. Under his striped parki he was dressed in spotted deer-skin, wore white deer-skin mucklucks, Arctic cap, and moose mittens. Pinned on his inner shirt was the badge of the Yukon Order of Pioneers–a footrule bent like the letter A above a scroll of leaves, and in the angle two linked O’s over Y. P.

It was the other man–the western towns are full of General Lighters–who did the talking. An attorney from Seattle, he had come up in the July rush with very little but boundless assurance, fell in with an old miner who had been grubstaked by Captain Rainey out of the _Oklahoma’s_ supplies, and got to Minook before the river went to sleep.

“No, we’re not pardners exactly,” he said, glancing good-humouredly at Dillon; “we’ve worked separate, but we’re going home two by two like animals into the Ark. We’ve got this in common. We’ve both ‘struck ile’–haven’t we, Dillon?”

Dillon nodded.

“Little Minook’s as rich a camp as Dawson, and the gold’s of higher grade–isn’t it, Dillon?”

“That’s right.”

“One of the many great advantages of Minook is that it’s the _nearest_ place on the river where they’ve struck pay dirt.” says the General. “And another great advantage is that it’s on the American side of the line.”

“What advantage is that?” Mac grated out.

“Just the advantage of not having all your hard earnings taken away by an iniquitous tax.”

“Look out! this fella’s a Britisher–“

“Don’t care if he is, and no disrespect to you, sir. The Canadians in the Klondyke are the first to say the tax is nothing short of highway robbery. You’ll see! The minute they hear of gold across the line there’ll be a stampede out of Dawson. I can put you in the way of getting a claim for eight thousand dollars that you can take eighty thousand out of next August, with no inspector coming round to check your clean-up, and no Government grabbing at your royalties.”

“Why aren’t you taking out that eighty thousand yourself?” asked Mac bluntly.

“Got more ‘n one man can handle,” answered the General. “Reckon we’ve earned a holiday.”

Dillon backed him up.

“Then it isn’t shortage in provisions that takes you outside,” said the Boy.

“Not much.”

“Plenty of food at Rampart City; that’s the name o’ the town where the Little Minook meets the Yukon.”

“Food at gold-craze prices, I suppose.”

“No. Just about the same they quote you in Seattle.”

“How is that possible when it’s been carried four thousand miles?”

“Because the A. C. and N. A. T. and T. boats got frozen in this side of Dawson. They know by the time they get there in June a lot of stuff will have come in by the short route through the lakes, and the town will be overstocked. So there’s flour and bacon to burn when you get up as far as Minook. It’s only along the Lower River there’s any real scarcity.”

The Big Chimney men exchanged significant looks.

“And there are more supply-boats wintering up at Fort Yukon and at Circle City,” the General went on. “I tell you on the Upper River there’s food to burn.”

Again the Big Chimney men looked at one another. The General kept helping himself to punch, and as he tossed it off he would say, “Minook’s the camp for me!” When he had given vent to this conviction three times, Benham, who hadn’t spoken since their entrance, said quietly:

“And you’re going away from it as hard as you can pelt.”

The General turned moist eyes upon him.

“Are you a man of family, sir?”

“No.”

“Then I cannot expect you to understand.” His eyes brimmed at some thought too fine and moving for public utterance.

Each member of the camp sat deeply cogitating. Not only gold at Minook, but food! In the inner vision of every eye was a ship-load of provisions “frozen in” hard by a placer claim; in every heart a fervid prayer for a dog-team.

The Boy jumped up, and ran his fingers through his long wild hair. He panted softly like a hound straining at a leash. Then, with an obvious effort to throw off the magic of Minook, he turned suddenly about, and “Poor old Kaviak!” says he, looking round and speaking in quite an everyday sort of voice.

The child was leaning against the door clasping the forgotten Christmas-tree so tight against the musk-rat coat that the branches hid his face. From time to time with reverent finger he touched silver boat and red-foil top, and watched, fascinated, how they swung. A white child in a tenth of the time would have eaten the cakes, torn off the transfiguring tinfoil, tired of the tree, and forgotten it. The Boy felt some compunction at the sight of Kaviak’s steadfast fidelity.

“Look here, we’ll set the tree up where you can see it better.” He put an empty bucket on the table, and with Mac’s help, wedged the spruce in it firmly, between some blocks of wood and books of the law.

The cabin was very crowded. Little Mr. Schiff was sitting on the cricket. Kaviak retired to his old seat on Elephas beyond the bunks, where he still had a good view of the wonderful tree, agreeably lit by what was left of the two candles.

“Those things are good to eat, you know,” said the Colonel kindly.

Mac cut down a gingerbread man and gave it into the tiny hands.

“What wind blew that thing into your cabin?” asked the General, squinting up his snow-blinded eyes at the dim corner where Kaviak sat.

There wasn’t a man in the camp who didn’t resent the millionaire’s tone.

“This is a great friend of ours–ain’t you, Kaviak?” said the Boy. “He’s got a soul above gold-mines, haven’t you? He sees other fellas helping themselves to his cricket and his high chair–too polite to object–just goes and sits like a philosopher on the bones of dead devils and looks on. Other fellas sittin’ in his place talkin’ about gold and drinkin’ punch–never offerin’ him a drop–“

Several cups were held out, but Mac motioned them back.

“I don’t think,” says John Dillon slyly–“don’t think _this_ punch will hurt the gentleman.”

And a roar went up at the Colonel’s expense. General Lighter pulled himself to his feet, saying there was a little good Old Rye left outside, and he could stock up again when he got to the _Oklahoma_.

“Oh, and it’s yersilf that don’t shoy off from a dthrop o’ the craythur whin yer thravellin’ the thrail.”

Everybody looked at Benham. He got up and began to put on his furs; his dog-driver, squatting by the door, took the hint, and went out to see after the team.

“Oh, well,” said the General to O’Flynn, “it’s Christmas, you know”; and he picked his way among the closely-packed company to the door.

“We ought to be movin’, too,” said Dillon, straightening up. The General halted, depressed at the reminder. “You know we swore we wouldn’t stop again unless–“

“Look here, didn’t you hear me saying it was Christmas?”

“You been sayin’ that for twenty-four hours. Been keepin’ Christmas right straight along since yesterday mornin.” But the General had gone out to unpack the whisky. “He knocked up the mission folks, bright and early yesterday, to tell ’em about the Glad News Tiding’s–Diggin’s, I mean.”

“What did they say?”

“Weren’t as good an audience as the General’s used to; that’s why we pushed on. We’d heard about your camp, and the General felt a call to preach the Gospel accordin’ to Minook down this way.”

“He don’t seem to be standin’ the racket as well as you,” said Schiff.

“Well, sir, this is the first time I’ve found him wantin’ to hang round after he’s thoroughly rubbed in the news.”

Dillon moved away from the fire; the crowded cabin was getting hot.

Nevertheless the Colonel put on more wood, explaining to Salmon P. and the others, who also moved back, that it was for illuminating purposes–those two candles burning down low, each between three nails in a little slab of wood–those two had been kept for Christmas, and were the last they had.

In the general movement from the fire, Benham, putting on his cap and gloves, had got next to Dillon.

“Look here,” said the Trader, under cover of the talk about candles, “what sort of a trip have you had?”

The Yukon pioneer looked at him a moment, and then took his pipe out of his mouth to say:

“Rank.”

“No fun, hey?”

“That’s right.” He restored the pipe, and drew gently.

“And yet to hear the General chirp–“

“He’s got plenty o’ grit, the General has.”

“Has he got gold?”

Dillon nodded. “Or will have.”

“Out of Minook?”

“Out of Minook.”

“In a sort of a kind of a way. I think I understand.” Benham wagged his head. “He’s talkin’ for a market.”

Dillon smoked.

“Goin’ out to stir up a boom, and sell his claim to some sucker.”

The General reappeared with the whisky, stamping the snow off his feet before he joined the group at the table, where the Christmas-tree was seasonably cheek by jowl with the punch-bowl between the low-burnt candles. Mixing the new brew did not interrupt the General’s ecstatic references to Minook.

“Look here!” he shouted across to Mac, “I’ll give you a lay on my best claim for two thousand down and a small royalty.”

Mac stuck out his jaw.

“I’d like to take a look at the country before I deal.”

“Well, see here. When will you go?”

“We got no dogs.”

“_We_ have!” exclaimed Salmon P. and Scruff with one voice.

“Well, I _can_ offer you fellows–“

“How many miles did you travel a day?”

“Sixty,” said the General promptly.

“Oh Lord!” ejaculated Benham, and hurriedly he made his good-byes.

“What’s the matter with _you?_” demanded the General with dignity.

“I’m only surprised to hear Minook’s twenty-four hundred miles away.”

“More like six hundred,” says the Colonel.

“And you’ve been forty days coming, and you cover sixty miles a day–Good-bye,” he laughed, and was gone.

“Well–a–” The General looked round.

“Travelin’ depends on the weather.” Dillon helped him out.

“Exactly. Depends on the weather,” echoed the General. “You don’t get an old Sour-dough like Dillon to travel at forty degrees.”

“How are you to know?” whispered Schiff.

“Tie a little bottle o’ quick to your sled,” answered Dillon.

“Bottle o’ what?” asked the Boy.

“Quicksilver–mercury,” interpreted the General.

“No dog-puncher who knows what he’s about travels when his quick goes dead.”

“If the stuff’s like lead in your bottle–” The General stopped to sample the new brew. In the pause, from the far side of the cabin Dillon spat straight and clean into the heart of the coals.

“Well, what do you do when the mercury freezes?” asked the Boy.

“Camp,” said Dillon impassively, resuming his pipe.

“I suppose,” the Boy went on wistfully–“I suppose you met men all the way making straight for Minook?”

“Only on this last lap.”

“They don’t get far, most of ’em.”

“But… but it’s worth trying!” the Boy hurried to bridge the chasm.

The General lifted his right arm in the attitude of the orator about to make a telling hit, but he was hampered by having a mug at his lips. In the pause, as he stood commanding attention, at the same time that he swallowed half a pint of liquor, he gave Dillon time leisurely to get up, knock the ashes out of his pipe stick it in his belt, put a slow hand behind him towards his pistol pocket, and bring out his buckskin gold sack. Now, only Mac of the other men had ever seen a miner’s purse before, but every one of the four cheechalkos knew instinctively what it was that Dillon held so carelessly. In that long, narrow bag, like the leg of a child’s stocking, was the stuff they had all come seeking.

The General smacked his lips, and set down the granite cup.

“_That’s_ the argument,” he said. “Got a noospaper?”

The Colonel looked about in a flustered way for the tattered San Francisco _Examiner_; Potts and the Boy hustled the punch-bowl on to the bucket board, recklessly spilling some of the precious contents. O’Flynn and Salmon P. whisked the Christmas tree into the corner, and not even the Boy remonstrated when a gingerbread man broke his neck, and was trampled under foot.

“Quick! the candles are going out!” shouted the Boy, and in truth each wick lay languishing in a little island of grease, now flaring bravely, now flickering to dusk. It took some time to find in the San Francisco _Examiner_ of August 7 a foot square space that was whole. But as quickly as possible the best bit was spread in the middle of the table. Dillon, in the breathless silence having slowly untied the thongs, held his sack aslant between the two lights, and poured out a stream-nuggets and coarse bright gold.

The crowd about the table drew audible breath. Nobody actually spoke at first, except O’Flynn, who said reverently: “Be–the Siven! Howly Pipers!–that danced at me–gran’-mother’s weddin’–when the divvle–called the chune!” Even the swimming wicks flared up, and seemed to reach out, each a hungry tongue of flame to touch and taste the glittering heap, before they went into the dark. Low exclamations, hands thrust out to feel, and drawn back in a sort of superstitious awe.

Here it was, this wonderful stuff they’d come for! Each one knew by the wild excitement in his own breast, how in secret he had been brought to doubt its being here. But here it was lying in a heap on the Big Cabin table! and–now it was gone.

The right candle had given out, and O’Flynn, blowing with impatience like a walrus, had simultaneously extinguished the other.

For an instant a group of men with strained and dazzled eyes still bent above the blackness on the boards.

“Stir the fire,” called the Colonel, and flew to do it himself.

“I’ll light a piece of fat pine,” shouted the Boy, catching up a stick, and thrusting it into the coals.

“Where’s your bitch?” said Dillon calmly.

“Bitch?”

“Haven’t you got a condensed milk can with some bacon grease in it, and a rag wick? Makes a good enough light.”

But the fire had been poked up, and the cabin was full of dancing lights and shadows. Besides that, the Boy was holding a resinous stick alight over the table, and they all bent down as before.

“It was passin’ a bank in ‘Frisco wid a windy full o’ that stuff that brought me up here,” said O’Flynn.

“It was hearin’ about that winder brought _me_” added Potts.

Everyone longed to touch and feel about in the glittering pile, but no one as yet had dared to lay a finger on the smallest grain in the hoard. An electrical shock flashed through the company when the General picked up one of the biggest nuggets and threw it down with a rich, full-bodied thud. “That one is four ounces.”

He took up another.

“This is worth about sixty dollars.”

“More like forty,” said Dillon.

They were of every conceivable shape and shapelessness, most of them flattened; some of them, the greenhorn would swear, were fashioned by man into roughly embossed hearts, or shells, or polished discs like rude, defaced coins. One was a perfect staple, another the letter “L,” another like an axe-head, and one like a peasant’s sabot. Some were almost black with iron stains, and some were set with “jewels” of quartz, but for the most part they were formless fragments of a rich and brassy yellow.

“Lots of the little fellas are like melon-seeds”; and the Boy pointed a shaking finger, longing and still not daring to touch the treasure.

Each man had a dim feeling in the back of his head that, after all, the hillock of gold was an illusion, and his own hand upon the dazzling pile would clutch the empty air.

“Where’s your dust?” asked the Boy.

Dillon stared.

“Why, here.”

“This is all nuggets and grains.”

“Well, what more do you want?”

“Oh, it’d do well enough for me, but it ain’t dust.”

“It’s what we call dust.”

“As coarse as this?”

The Sour-dough nodded, and Lighter laughed.

“There’s a fox’s mask,” said the Colonel at the bottom of the table, pointing a triangular bit out.

“Let me look at it a minute,” begged the Boy.

“Hand it round,” whispered Schiff.

It was real. It was gold. Their fingers tingled under the first contact. This was the beginning.

The rude bit of metal bred a glorious confidence. Under the magic of its touch Robert Bruce’s expensive education became a simple certainty. In Potts’s hand the nugget gave birth to a mighty progeny. He saw himself pouring out sackfuls before his enraptured girl.

The Boy lifted his flaring torch with a victorious sense of having just bought back the Orange Grove; and Salmon P. passed the nugget to his partner with a blissful sigh.

“Well, I’m glad we didn’t get cold feet,” says he.

“Yes,” whispered Schiff; “it looks like we goin’ to the right place.”

The sheen of the heap of yellow treasure was trying even to the nerves of the Colonel.

“Put it away,” he said quite solemnly, laying the nugget on the paper–“put it all away before the firelight dies down.”

Dillon leisurely gathered it up and dropped the nuggets, with an absent-minded air, into the pouch which Lighter held.

But the San Francisco _Examiner_ had been worn to the softness of an old rag and the thinness of tissue. Under Dillon’s sinewy fingers pinching up the gold the paper gave way.

“Oh!” exclaimed more than one voice, as at some grave mishap.

Dillon improvised a scoop out of a dirty envelope. Nobody spoke and everybody watched, and when, finally, with his hand, he brushed the remaining grains off the torn paper into the envelope, poured them into the gaping sack-mouth, and lazily pulled at the buckskin draw-string, everybody sat wondering how much, if any, of the precious metal had escaped through the tear, and how soon Dillon would come out of his brown study, remember, and recover the loss. But a spell seemed to have fallen on the company. No one spoke, till Dillon, with that lazy motion, hoisting one square shoulder and half turning his body round, was in the act of returning the sack to his hip-pocket.

“Wait!” said Mac, with the explosiveness of a firearm, and O’Flynn jumped.

“You ain’t got it all,” whispered Schiff hurriedly.

“Oh, I’m leavin’ the fox-face for luck,” Dillon nodded at the Colonel.

But Schiff pointed reverently at the tear in the paper, as Dillon only went on pushing his sack deep down in his pocket, while Mac lifted the _Examiner_. All but the two millionaires bent forward and scrutinised the table. O’Flynn impulsively ran one lone hand over the place where the gold-heap had lain, his other hand held ready at the table’s edge to catch any sweepings. None! But the result of O’Flynn’s action was that those particles of gold that that fallen through the paper were driven into the cracks and inequalities of the board.

“There! See?”

“Now look what you’ve done!”

Mac pointed out a rough knot-hole, too, that slyly held back a pinch of gold.

“Oh, that!”

Dillon slapped his hip, and settled into his place. But the men nearest the crack and the knot-hole fell to digging out the renegade grains, and piously offering them to their lawful owner.

“That ain’t worth botherin’ about,” laughed Dillon; “you always reckon to lose a little each time, even if you got a China soup-plate.”

“Plenty more where that came from,” said the General, easily.

Such indifference was felt to be magnificent indeed. The little incident said more for the richness of Minook than all the General’s blowing; they forgot that what was lost would amount to less than fifty cents. The fact that it was gold–Minook gold–gave it a symbolic value not to be computed in coin.

“How do you go?” asked the Colonel, as the two millionaires began putting on their things.

“We cut across to Kuskoquim. Take on an Indian guide there to Nushagak, and from there with dogs across the ocean ice to Kadiak.”

“Oh! the way the letters go out.”

“When they _do_,” smiled Dillon. “Yes, it’s the old Russian Post Trail, I believe. South of Kadiak Island the sea is said to be open as early as the first of March. We’ll get a steamer to Sitka, and from Sitka, of course, the boats run regular.”

“Seattle by the middle of March!” says the General. “Come along, Dillon; the sooner you get to Seattle, and blow in a couple o’ hundred thousand, the sooner you’ll get back to Minook.”

Dillon went out and roused up the dogs, asleep in the snow, with their bushy tails sheltering their sharp noses.

“See you later?”

“Yes, ‘outside.'”

“Outside? No, sir! _Inside_.”

Dillon swore a blood-curdling string of curses and cracked his whip over the leader.

“Why, you comin’ back?”

“Bet your life!”

And nobody who looked at the face of the Yukon pioneer could doubt he meant what he said.

They went indoors. The cabin wore an unwonted and a rakish air. The stools seemed to have tried to dance the lancers and have fallen out about the figure. Two were overturned. The unwashed dishes were tossed helter-skelter. A tipsy Christmas tree leaned in drunken fashion against the wall, and under its boughs lay a forgotten child asleep. On the other side of the cabin an empty whisky bottle caught a ray of light from the fire, and glinted feebly back. Among the ashes on the hearth was a screw of paper, charred at one end, and thrown there after lighting someone’s pipe. The Boy opened it. The famous programme of the Yukon Symposium!

“It’s been a different sort of Christmas from what we planned,” observed the Colonel, not quite as gaily as you might expect.

“Begob!” says O’Flynn, stretching out his interminable legs; “ye can’t say we haven’t hearrd Glad Tidings of gr-reat j’y–“

“Colonel,” interrupts the Boy, throwing the Programme in the fire, “let’s look at your nugget again.”

And they all took turns. Except Potts. He was busy digging the remaining gold-grains out of the crack and the knothole.

CHAPTER IX

A CHRISTIAN AGNOSTIC

“–giver mig Rum!
Himlen bar Stjerner Natten er stum.”

It was a good many days before they got the dazzle of that gold out of their eyes. They found their tongues again, and talked “Minook” from morning till night among themselves and with the rare passer up or down the trail.

Mac began to think they might get dogs at Anvik, or at one of the Ingalik villages, a little further on. The balance of opinion in the camp was against this view. But he had Potts on his side. When the New Year opened, the trail was in capital condition. On the second of January two lots of Indians passed, one with dogs hauling flour and bacon for Benham, and the other lot without dogs, dragging light hand-sleds. Potts said restlessly:

“After all, _they_ can do it.”

“So can we if we’ve a mind to,” said Mac.

“Come on, then.”

The camp tried hard to dissuade them. Naturally neither listened. They packed the Boy’s sled and set off on the morning of the third, to Kaviak’s unbounded surprise and disgust, his view of life being that, wherever Mac went, he was bound to follow. And he did follow–made off as hard as his swift little feet could carry him, straight up the Yukon trail, and Farva lost a good half of that first morning bringing him home.

Just eight days later the two men walked into the Cabin and sat down–Potts with a heart-rending groan, Mac with his jaw almost dislocated in his cast-iron attempt to set his face against defeat; their lips were cracked with the cold, their faces raw from frostbite, their eyes inflamed. The weather–they called it the weather–had been too much for them. It was obvious they hadn’t brought back any dogs, but–

“What did you think of Anvik?” says the Boy.

“Anvik? You don’t suppose we got to Anvik in weather like this!”

“How far _did_ you get?”

Mac didn’t answer. Potts only groaned. He had frozen his cheek and his right hand.

They were doctored and put to bed.

“Did you see my friends at Holy Cross?” the Boy asked Potts when he brought him a bowl of hot bean-soup.

“You don’t suppose we got as far as Holy Cross, with the wind–“

“Well, where _did_ you get to? Where you been?”

“Second native village above.”

“Why, that isn’t more’n sixteen miles.”

“Sixteen miles too far.”

Potts breathed long and deep between hot and comforting swallows.

“Where’s the Boy’s sled?” said the Colonel, coming in hurriedly.

“We cached it,” answered Potts feebly.

“Couldn’t even bring his sled home! _Where’ve_ you cached it?”

“It’s all right–only a few miles back.”

Potts relinquished the empty soup-bowl, and closed his eyes.

* * * * *

When he opened them again late in the evening it was to say:

“Found some o’ those suckers who were goin’ so slick to Minook; some o’ _them_ down at the second village, and the rest are winterin’ in Anvik, so the Indians say. Not a single son of a gun will see the diggins till the ice goes out.”

“Then, badly off as we are here,” says the Colonel to the Boy, “it’s lucky for us we didn’t join the procession.”

When Mac and the Boy brought the sled home a couple of days later, it was found that a portion of its cargo consisted of a toy kyak and two bottles of hootchino, the maddening drink concocted by the natives out of fermented dough and sugar.

Apart from the question of drinking raised again by the “hootch,” it is perhaps possible that, having so little else to do, they were ready to eat the more; it is also true that, busy or idle, the human body requires more nourishment in the North than it does in the South.

Certainly the men of the little Yukon camp began to find their rations horribly short commons, and to suffer a continual hunger, never wholly appeased. It is conditions like these that bring out the brute latent in all men. The day came to mean three scant meals. Each meal came to mean a silent struggle in each man’s soul not to let his stomach get the better of his head and heart. At first they joked and laughed about their hunger and the scarcity. By-and-by it became too serious, the jest was wry-faced and rang false. They had, in the beginning, each helped himself from common dishes set in the middle of the rough plank table. Later, each found how, without meaning to–hating himself for it–he watched food on its way to others’ plates with an evil eye. When it came to his turn, he had an ever-recurrent struggle with himself not to take the lion’s share. There were ironical comments now and then, and ill-concealed bitterness. No one of the five would have believed he could feel so towards a human being about a morsel of food, but those who think they would be above it, have not wintered in the Arctic regions or fought in the Boer War. The difficulty was frankly faced at last, and it was ordained in council that the Colonel should be dispenser of the food.

“Can’t say I like the office,” quoth he, “but here goes!” and he cut the bacon with an anxious hand, and spooned out the beans solemnly as if he weighed each “go.” And the Trio presently retired to the Little Cabin to discuss whether the Colonel didn’t show favouritism to the Boy, and, when Mac was asleep, how they could get rid of Kaviak.

So presently another council was called, and the Colonel resigned his office, stipulating that each man in turn should hold it for a week, and learn how ungrateful it was. Moreover, that whoever was, for the nonce, occupying the painful post, should be loyally upheld by all the others, which arrangement was in force to the end.

And still, on grounds political, religious, social, trivial, the disaffection grew. Two of the Trio sided against the odd man, Potts, and turned him out of the Little Cabin one night during a furious snowstorm, that had already lasted two days, had more than half buried the hut, and nearly snowed up the little doorway. The Colonel and the Boy had been shovelling nearly all the day before to keep free the entrance to the Big Cabin and the precious “bottle” window, as well as their half of the path between the two dwellings. O’Flynn and Potts had played poker and quarrelled as usual.

The morning after the ejection of Potts, and his unwilling reception at the Big Cabin, Mac and O’Flynn failed to appear for breakfast.

“Guess they’re huffy,” says Potts, stretching out his feet, very comfortable in their straw-lined mucklucks, before the big blaze. “Bring on the coffee, Kaviak.”

“No,” says the Colonel, “we won’t begin without the other fellows.”

“By the living Jingo, _I_ will then!” says Potts, and helps himself under the Colonel’s angry eyes.

The other two conferred a moment, then drew on their parkis and mittens, and with great difficulty, in spite of yesterday’s work, got the door open. It was pretty dark, but there was no doubt about it, the Little Cabin had disappeared.

“Look! isn’t that a curl of smoke?” said the Boy.

“Yes, by George! they’re snowed under!”

“Serve ’em right!”

A heavy sigh from the Colonel. “Yes, but _we’ll_ have to dig ’em out!”

“Look here, Colonel”–the Boy spoke with touching solemnity–“_not before breakfast!_”

“Right you are!” laughed the Colonel; and they went in.

It was that day, after the others had been released and fed, that the Boy fell out with Potts concerning who had lost the hatchet–and they came to blows. A black eye and a bloody nose might not seem an illuminating contribution to the question, but no more was said about the hatchet after the Colonel had dragged the Boy off the prostrate form of his adversary.

But the Colonel himself lost his temper two days later when O’Flynn broached the seal set months before on the nearly empty demijohn. For those famous “temperance punches” the Colonel had drawn on his own small stock. He saw his blunder when O’Flynn, possessing himself of the demijohn, roared out:

“It’s my whisky, I tell you! I bought it and paid furr it, and but for me it would be at the bottom o’ the Yukon now.”

“Yes, and you’d be at the bottom of the Yukon yourself if you hadn’t been dragged out by the scruff o’ your neck. And you’d be in a pretty fix now, if we left you alone with your whisky, which is about all you’ve got.”

“We agreed,” Potts chipped in, “that it should be kept for medicinal purposes only.”

Sullenly O’Flynn sipped at his grog. Potts had “hogged most of the hootch.”

* * * * *

“Look here, Boy,” said Mac at supper, “I said I wouldn’t eat off this plate again.”

“Oh, dry up! One tin plate’s like another tin plate.”

“Are you reflecting on the washer-up, Mr. MacCann?” asked Potts.

“I’m saying what I’ve said before–that I’ve scratched my name on my plate, and I won’t eat off this rusty, battered kettle-lid.”

He held it up as if to shy it at the Boy. The young fellow turned with a flash in his eye and stood taut. Then in the pause he said quite low:

“Let her fly, MacCann.”

But MacCann thought better of it. He threw the plate down on the table with a clatter. The Colonel jumped up and bent over the mush-pot at the fire, beside the Boy, whispering to him.

“Oh, all right.”

When the Boy turned back to the table, with the smoking kettle, the cloud had gone from his face. MacCann had got up to hang a blanket over the door. While his back was turned the Boy brought a tin plate, still in good condition, set it down at Mac’s place, planted a nail on end in the middle, and with three blows from a hammer fastened the plate firmly to the board.

“Maybe you can’t hand it up for more as often as you like, but you’ll always find it there,” he said when McCann came back. And the laugh went against the dainty pioneer, who to the end of the chapter ate from a plate nailed fast to the table.

“I begin to understand,” says the Colonel to the Boy, under cover of the others’ talk, “why it’s said to be such a devil of a test of a fellow’s decency to winter in this infernal country.”

“They say it’s always a man’s pardner he comes to hate most,” returned the Boy, laughing good-humouredly at the Colonel.

“Naturally. Look at the row in the Little Cabin.”

“That hasn’t been the only row,” the Boy went on more thoughtfully. “I say, Colonel”–he lowered his voice–“do you know there’ll have to be a new system of rations? I’ve been afraid–now I’m _sure_–the grub won’t last till the ice goes out.”

“I know it,” said the Colonel very gravely.

“Was there a miscalculation?”

“I hope it was that–or else,” speaking still lower, “the stores have been tampered with, and not by Kaviak either. There’ll be a hell of a row.” He looked up, and saw Potts watching them suspiciously. It had come to this: if two men talked low the others pricked their ears. “But lack of grub,” resumed the Colonel in his usual voice, as though he had not noticed, “is only one of our difficulties. Lack of work is just about as bad. It breeds a thousand devils. We’re a pack o’ fools. Here we are, all of us, hard hit, some of us pretty well cleaned out o’ ready cash, and here’s dollars and dollars all round us, and we sit over the fire like a lot of God-forsaken natives.”

“Dollars! Where?”

“Growin’ on the trees, boys; a forest full.”

“Oh, timber.” Enthusiasm cooled.

“Look at what they say about those fellows up at Anvik, what they made last year.”

“They’ve got a saw-mill.”

“_Now_ they have. But they cut and sold cord-wood to the steamers two years before they got a mill, and next summer will be the biggest season yet. We ought to have set to, as soon as the cabins were built, and cut wood for the summer traffic. But since there are five of us, we can make a good thing of it yet.”

The Colonel finally carried the day. They went at it next morning, and, as the projector of the work had privately predicted, a better spirit prevailed in the camp for some time. But here were five men, only one of whom had had any of the steadying grace of stiff discipline in his life, men of haphazard education, who had “chucked” more or less easy berths in a land of many creature comforts … for this–to fell and haul birch and fir trees in an Arctic climate on half-rations! It began to be apparent that the same spirit was invading the forest that had possession of the camp; two, or at most three, did the work, and the rest shirked, got snow-blindness and rheumatism, and let the others do his share, counting securely, nevertheless, on his fifth of the proceeds, just as he counted (no matter what proportion he had contributed) on his full share of the common stock of food.

“I came out here a Communist–” said the Boy one day to the Colonel.

“And an agnostic,” smiled the older man.

“Oh, I’m an agnostic all right, now and for ever. But this winter has cured my faith in Communism.”

Early February brought not only lengthening daylight, but a radical change in the weather. The woodsmen worked in their shirt-sleeves, perspired freely, and said in the innocence of their hearts, “If winter comes early up here, spring does the same.” The whole hillside was one slush, and the snow melting on the ill-made Little Cabin roof brought a shower-bath into the upper bunk.

Few things in nature so surely stir the pulse of man as the untimely coming of a few spring days, that have lost their way in the calendar, and wandered into winter. No trouble now to get the Big Chimney men away from the fireside. They held up their bloodless faces in the faint sunshine, and their eyes, with the pupils enlarged by the long reign of night, blinked feebly, like an owl’s forced to face the morning.

There were none of those signs in the animal world outside, of premature stir and cheerful awaking, that in other lands help the illusion that winter lies behind, but there was that even more stimulating sweet air abroad, that subtle mixture of sun and yielding frost, that softened wind that comes blowing across the snow, still keen to the cheek, but subtly reviving to the sensitive nostril, and caressing to the eyes. The Big Chimney men drew deep breaths, and said in their hearts the battle was over and won.

Kaviak, for ever following at Mac’s heels “like a rale Irish tarrier,” found his allegiance waver in these stirring, blissful days, if ever Farva so belied character and custom as to swing an axe for any length of time. Plainly out of patience, Kaviak would throw off the musk-rat coat, and run about in wet mucklucks and a single garment–uphill, downhill, on important errands which he confided to no man.

It is part of the sorcery of such days that men’s thoughts, like birds’, turn to other places, impatient of the haven that gave them shelter in rough weather overpast. The Big Chimney men leaned on their axes and looked north, south, east, west.

Then the Colonel would give a little start, turn about, lift his double-bitter, and swing it frontier fashion, first over one shoulder, then over the other, striking cleanly home each time, working with a kind of splendid rhythm more harmonious, more beautiful to look at, than most of the works of men. This was, perhaps, the view of his comrades, for they did a good deal of looking at the Colonel. He said he was a modest man and didn’t like it, and Mac, turning a little rusty under the gibe, answered:

“Haven’t you got the sense to see we’ve cut all the good timber just round here?” and again he turned his eyes to the horizon line.

“Mac’s right,” said the Boy; and even the Colonel stood still a moment, and they all looked away to that land at the end of the world where the best materials are for the building of castles–it’s the same country so plainly pointed out by the Rainbow’s End, and never so much as in the springtime does it lure men with its ancient promise.

“Come along, Colonel; let’s go and look for real timber–“

“And let’s find it nearer water-level–where the steamers can see it right away.”

“What about the kid?”

“Me come,” said Kaviak, with a highly obliging air.

“No; you stay at home.”

“No; go too.”

“Go too, thou babbler! Kaviak’s a better trail man than some I could mention.”

“We’ll have to carry him home,” objected Potts.

“Now don’t tell us you’ll do any of the carryin’, or we’ll lose confidence in you, Potts.”

The trail was something awful, but on their Canadian snowshoes they got as far as an island, six miles off. One end of it was better wooded than any easily accessible place they had seen.

“Why, this is quite like real spruce,” said the Boy, and O’Flynn admitted that even in California “these here would be called ‘trees’ wid no intintion o’ bein’ sarcaustic.”

So they cut holes in the ice, and sounded for the channel.

“Yes, sir, the steamers can make a landin’ here, and here’s where we’ll have our wood-rack.”

They went home in better spirits than they had been in since that welter of gold had lain on the Big Cabin table.

* * * * *

But a few days sufficed to wear the novelty off the new wood camp for most of the party. Potts and O’Flynn set out in the opposite direction one morning with a hand-sled, and provisions to last several days. They were sick of bacon and beans, and were “goin’ huntin’.” No one could deny that a moose or even a grouse–anything in the shape of fresh meat–was sufficiently needed. But Potts and O’Flynn were really sick and sore from their recent slight attack of wood-felling. They were after bigger game, too, as well as grouse, and a few days “off.” It had turned just enough colder to glaze the trail and put it in fine condition. They went down the river to the _Oklahoma,_ were generously entertained by Captain Rainey, and learned that, with earlier contracts on his hands, he did not want more wood from them than they had already corded. They returned to the camp without game, but with plenty of whisky, and information that freed them from the yoke of labour, and from the lash of ironic comment. In vain the Colonel urged that the _Oklahoma_ was not the only steamer plying the Yukon, that with the big rush of the coming season the traffic would be enormous, and a wood-pile as good as a gold mine. The cause was lost.

“You won’t get us to make galley-slaves of ourselves on the off-chance of selling. Rainey says that wood camps have sprung up like mushrooms all along the river. The price of wood will go down to–“

“All along the river! There isn’t one between us and Andreievsky, nor between here and Holy Cross.”

But it was no use. The travellers pledged each other in _Oklahoma_ whisky, and making a common cause once more, the original Trio put in a night of it. The Boy and the Colonel turned into their bunks at eleven o’clock. They were roused in the small hours, by Kaviak’s frightened crying, and the noise of angry voices.

“You let the kid alone.”

“Well, it’s mesilf that’ll take the liberty o’ mintionin’ that I ain’t goin’ to stand furr another minyit an Esquimer’s cuttin’ down _my_ rations. Sure it’s a fool I’ve been!”

“You can’t help that,” Mac chopped out.

“Say Mac,” said Potts in a drunken voice, “I’m talkin’ to you like a friend. You want to get a move on that kid.”

“Kaviak’s goin’ won’t make any more difference than a fly’s.”

The other two grumbled incoherently.

“But I tell you what _would_ make a difference: if you two would quit eatin’ on the sly–out o’ meal-times.”

“Be the Siven!”

“You lie!” A movement, a stool overturned, and the two men in the bunks were struck broad awake by the smart concussion of a gun-shot. Nobody was hurt, and between them they disarmed Potts, and turned the Irishman out to cool off in his own cabin. It was all over in a minute. Kaviak, reassured, curled down to sleep again. Mac and Potts stretched themselves on the buffalo-robe half under the table, and speedily fell to snoring. The Boy put on some logs. He and the Colonel sat and watched the sparks.

“It’s a bad business.”

“It can’t go on,” says the Colonel; “but Mac’s right: Kaviak’s being here isn’t to blame. They–we, too–are like a lot of powder-cans.”

The Boy nodded. “Any day a spark, and _biff!_ some of us are in a blaze, and wh-tt! bang! and some of us are in Kingdom Come.”

“I begin to be afraid to open my lips,” said the Colonel. “We all are; don’t you notice?”

“Yes. I wonder why we came.”

“_You_ had no excuse,” said the elder man almost angrily.

“Same excuse as you.”

The Colonel shook his head.

“Exactly,” maintained the Boy. “Tired of towns and desk-work, and–and–” The Boy shifted about on his wooden stool, and held up his hands to the reviving blaze. “Life owes us steady fellows one year of freedom, anyhow–one year to make ducks and drakes of. Besides, we’ve all come to make our fortunes. Doesn’t every mother’s son of us mean to find a gold-mine in the spring when we get to the Klondyke–eh?” And he laughed again, and presently he yawned, and tumbled back into his bunk. But he put his head out in a moment. “Aren’t you going to bed?”

“Yes.” The Colonel stood up.

“Did you know Father Wills went by, last night, when those fellows began to row about getting out the whisky?”

“No.”

“He says there’s another stampede on.”

“Where to?”

“Koyukuk this time.”

“Why didn’t he come in?”

“Awful hurry to get to somebody that sent for him. Funny fellas these Jesuits. They _believe_ all those odd things they teach.”

“So do other men,” said the Colonel, curtly.

“Well, I’ve lived in a Christian country all my life, but I don’t know that I ever saw Christianity _practised_ till I went up the Yukon to Holy Cross.”

“I must say you’re complimentary to the few other Christians scattered about the world.”

“Don’t get mifft, Colonel. I’ve known plenty of people straight as a die, and capital good fellows. I’ve seen them do very decent things now and then. But with these Jesuit missionaries–Lord! there’s no let up to it.”

No answer from the Protestant Colonel. Presently the Boy in a sleepy voice added elegantly:

“No Siree! The Jesuits go the whole hog!”

* * * * *

Winter was down on the camp again. The whole world was hard as iron. The men kept close to the Big Chimney all day long, and sat there far into the small hours of the morning, saying little, heavy-eyed and sullen. The dreaded insomnia of the Arctic had laid hold on all but the Colonel. Even his usually unbroken repose was again disturbed one night about a week later. Some vague sort of sound or movement in the room–Kaviak on a raid?–or–wasn’t that the closing of a door?

“Kaviak!” He put his hand down and felt the straight hair of the Esquimaux in the under bunk. “Potts! Who’s there?” He half sat up. “Boy! Did you hear that, Boy?”

He leaned far down over the side and saw distinctly by the fire-light there was nobody but Kaviak in the under bunk.

The Colonel was on his legs in a flash, putting his head through his parki and drawing on his mucklucks. He didn’t wait to cross and tie the thongs. A presentiment of evil was strong upon him. Outside in the faint star-light he thought a dim shape was passing down towards the river.

“Who’s that? Hi, there! Stop, or I’ll shoot!” He hadn’t brought his gun, but the ruse worked.

“Don’t shoot!” came back the voice of the Boy.

The Colonel stumbled down the bank in the snow, and soon stood by the shape. The Boy was dressed for a journey. His Arctic cap was drawn down over his ears and neck. The wolf-skin fringe of his parki hood stood out fiercely round the defiant young face. Wound about one of his seal-skin mittens was the rope of the new hand-sled he’d been fashioning so busily of nights by the camp fire. His two blankets were strapped on the sled, Indian fashion, along with a gunny sack and his rifle.

The two men stood looking angrily at each other a moment, and then the Colonel politely inquired:

“What in hell are you doing?”

“Goin’ to Minook.”

“The devil you are!”

“Yes, the devil I am!”

They stood measuring each other in the dim light, till the Colonel’s eyes fell on the loaded sled. The Boy’s followed.

“I’ve only taken short rations for two weeks. I left a statement in the cabin; it’s about a fifth of what’s my share, so there’s no need of a row.”

“What are you goin’ for?”

“Why, to be first in the field, and stake a gold-mine, of course.”

The Colonel laid a rough hand on the Boy’s shoulder. He shook it off impatiently, and before the older man could speak:

“Look here, let’s talk sense. Somebody’s got to go, or there’ll be trouble. Potts says Kaviak. But what difference would Kaviak make? I’ve been afraid you’d get ahead of me. I’ve watched you for a week like a hawk watches a chicken. But it’s clear I’m the one to go.”

He pulled up the rope of the sled, and his little cargo lurched towards him. The Colonel stepped in front of him.

“Boy–” he began, but something was the matter with his voice; he got no further.

“I’m the youngest,” boasted the other, “and I’m the strongest, and–I’m the hungriest.”

The Colonel found a perturbed and husky voice in which to say:

“I didn’t know you were such a Christian.”

“Nothin’ o’ the sort.”

“What’s this but–“

“Why, it’s just–just my little scheme.”

“You’re no fool. You know as well as I do you’ve got the devil’s own job in hand.”

“Somebody’s got to go,” he repeated doggedly.

“Look here,” said the Colonel, “you haven’t impressed me as being tired of life.”

“Tired of life!” The young eyes flashed in that weird aureole of long wolf-hair. “Tired of life! Well, I should just pretty nearly think I wasn’t.”

“H’m! Then if it isn’t Christianity, it must be because you’re young.”

“Golly, man! it’s because I’m hungry–HUNGRY! Great Jehosaphat! I could eat an ox!”

“And you leave your grub behind, to be eaten by a lot of–“

“I can’t stand here argyfying with the thermometer down to–” The Boy began to drag the sled over the snow.

“Come back into the cabin.”

“No.”

“Come with me, I say; I’ve got something to propose.” Again the Colonel stood in front, barring the way. “Look here,” he went on gently, “are you a friend of mine?”

“Oh, so-so,” growled the Boy. But after looking about him for an angry second or two, he flung down the rope of his sled, walked sulkily uphill, and kicked off his snow-shoes at the door of the cabin, all with the air of one who waits, but is not baulked of his purpose. They went in and stripped off their furs.

“Now see here: if you’ve made up your mind to light out, I’m not going to oppose you.”

“Why didn’t you say anything as sensible as that out yonder?”

“Because I won’t be ready to go along till to-morrow.”

“You?”

“Yep.”

There was a little silence.

“I wish you wouldn’t, Colonel.”

“It’s dangerous alone–not for two.”

“Yes, it IS dangerous, and you know it.”

“I’m goin’ along, laddie.” Seeing the Boy look precious grave and harassed: “What’s the matter?”

“I’d hate awfully for anything to happen to you.”

The Colonel laughed. “Much obliged, but it matters uncommon little if I do drop in my tracks.”

“You be blowed!”

“You see I’ve got a pretty bad kind of a complaint, anyhow.” The Boy leaned over in the firelight and scanned the Colonel’s face.

“What’s wrong?”

The Colonel smiled a queer little one-sided smile. “I’ve been out o’ kelter nearly ten years.”

“Oh, _that’s_ all right. You’ll go on for another thirty if you stay where you are till the ice goes out.”

The Colonel bent his head, and stared at the smooth-trodden floor at the edge of the buffalo-skin. “To tell the truth, I’ll be glad to go, not only because of–” He hitched his shoulders towards the corner whence came the hoarse and muffled breathing of the Denver clerk. “I’ll be glad to have something to tire me out, so I’ll sleep–sleep too sound to dream. That’s what I came for, not to sit idle in a God-damn cabin and think–think–” He got up suddenly and strode the tiny space from fire to door, a man transformed, with hands clenching and dark face almost evil. “They say the men who winter up here either take to drink or go mad. I begin to see it is so. It’s no place to do any forgetting in.” He stopped suddenly before the Boy with glittering eyes. “It’s the country where your conscience finds you out.”

“That religion of yours is makin’ you morbid, Colonel.” The Boy spoke with the detached and soothing air of a sage.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turned sharply away. The Boy relapsed into silence. The Colonel in his renewed prowling brought up against the wooden crane. He stood looking down into the fire. Loud and regular sounded the sleeping man’s breathing in the quiet little room.

“I did a wrong once to a woman–ten years ago,” said the Colonel, speaking to the back-log–“although I loved her.” He raised a hand to his eyes with a queer choking sound. “I loved her,” he repeated, still with his back to the Boy. “By-and-by I could have righted it, but she–she wasn’t the kind to hang about and wait on a man’s better nature when once he’d shown himself a coward. She skipped the country.” He leaned his head against the end of the shelf over the fire, and said no more.

“Go back in the spring, find out where she is, and–“

“I’ve spent every spring and every summer, every fall and every winter till this one, trying to do just that thing.”

“You can’t find her?”

“Nobody can find her.”

“She’s dead–“

“She’s _not_ dead!”

The Boy involuntarily shrank back; the Colonel looked ready to smash him. The action recalled the older man to himself.

“I feel sure she isn’t dead,” he said more quietly, but still trembling. “No, no; she isn’t dead. She had some money of her own, and she went abroad. I followed her. I heard of her in Paris, in Rome. I saw her once in a droschky in Vienna; there I lost the trail. Her people said she’d gone to Japan. _I_ went to Japan. I’m sure she wasn’t in the islands. I’ve spent my life since trying to find her–writing her letters that always come back–trying–” His voice went out like a candle-wick suddenly dying in the socket. Only the sleeper was audible for full five minutes. Then, as though he had paused only a comma’s space, the Colonel went on: “I’ve been trying to put the memory of her behind me, as a sane man should. But some women leave an arrow sticking in your flesh that you can never pull out. You can only jar against it, and cringe under the agony of the reminder all your life long…. Bah! Go out, Boy, and bring in your sled.”

And the Boy obeyed without a word.

Two days after, three men with a child stood in front of the larger cabin, saying good-bye to their two comrades who were starting out on snow-shoes to do a little matter of 625 miles of Arctic travelling, with two weeks’ scant provisioning, some tea and things for trading, bedding, two rifles, and a kettle, all packed on one little hand-sled.

There had been some unexpected feeling, and even some real generosity shown at the last, on the part of the three who were to profit by the exodus–falling heir thereby to a bigger, warmer cabin and more food.

O’Flynn was moved to make several touching remonstrances. It was a sign of unwonted emotion on Mac’s part that he gave up arguing (sacrificing all the delight of a set debate), and simply begged and prayed them not to be fools, not to fly in the face of Providence.

But Potts was made of sterner stuff. Besides, the thing was too good to be true. O’Flynn, when he found they were not to be dissuaded, solemnly presented each with a little bottle of whisky. Nobody would have believed O’Flynn would go so far as that. Nor could anyone have anticipated that close-fisted Mac would give the Boy his valuable aneroid barometer and compass, or that Potts would be so generous with his best Virginia straight-cut, filling the Colonel’s big pouch without so much as a word.

“It’s a crazy scheme,” says he, shaking the giant Kentuckian by the hand, “and you won’t get thirty miles before you find it out.”

“Call it an expedition to Anvik,” urged Mac. “Load up there with reindeer meat, and come back. If we don’t get some fresh meat soon, we’ll be having scurvy.”

“What you’re furr doin’,” says O’Flynn for the twentieth time, “has niver been done, not ayven be Indians. The prastes ahl say so.”

“So do the Sour-doughs,” said Mac. “It isn’t as if you had dogs.”

“Good-bye,” said the Colonel, and the men grasped hands.

Potts shook hands with the Boy as heartily as though that same hand had never half throttled him in the cause of a missing hatchet.

“Good-bye, Kiddie. I bequeath you my share o’ syrup.”

“Good-bye; meet you in the Klondyke!”

“Good-bye. Hooray for the Klondyke in June!”

“Klondyke in June! Hoop-la!”

The two travellers looked back, laughing and nodding, as jolly as you please. The Boy stooped, made a snow-ball, and fired it at Kaviak. The child ducked, chuckling, and returned as good as he got. His loosely packed ball broke in a splash on the back of the Boy’s parki, and Kaviak was loudly cheered.

Still, as they went forward, they looked back. The Big Chimney wore an air wondrous friendly, and the wide, white world looked coldly at them, with small pretence of welcome or reward.

“I don’t believe I ever really knew how awful jolly the Big Chimney was–till this minute.”

The Colonel smiled. “Hardly like myself, to think whatever else I see, I’ll never see that again.”

“Better not boast.”

The Colonel went on in front, breaking trail in the newfallen snow, the Boy pulling the sled behind him as lightly as if its double burden were a feather.

“They look as if they thought it’d be a picnic,” says Mac, grimly.

“I wonder be the Siven Howly Pipers! will we iver see ayther of ’em again.”

“If they only stay a couple o’ nights at Anvik,” said Potts, with gloomy foreboding, “they could get back here inside a week.”

“No,” answered Mac, following the two figures with serious eyes, “they may be dead inside a week, but they won’t be back here.”

And Potts felt his anxiety eased. A man who had mined at Caribou ought to know.

CHAPTER X

PRINCESS MUCKLUCK

“We all went to Tibbals to see the Kinge, who used my mother and my aunt very gratiouslie; but we all saw a great chaunge betweene the fashion of the Court as it was now, and of y in ye Queene’s, for we were all lowzy by sittinge in Sr Thomas Erskin’s chamber.” _Memoir: Anne Countess of Dorset_, 1603.

It was the 26th of February, that first day that they “hit the Long Trail.”

Temperature only about twenty degrees, the Colonel thought, and so little wind it had the effect of being warmer. Trail in fair condition, weather gray and steady. Never men in better spirits. To have left the wrangling and the smouldering danger of the camp behind, that alone, as the Boy said, was “worth the price of admission.” Exhilarating, too, to men of their temperament, to have cut the Gordian knot of the difficulty by risking themselves on this unprecedented quest for peace and food. Gold, too? Oh, yes–with a smile to see how far that main object had drifted into the background–they added, “and for gold.”

They believed they had hearkened well to the counsel that bade them “travel light.” “Remember, every added ounce is against you.” “Nobody in the North owns anything that’s heavy,” had been said in one fashion or another so often that it lost its ironic sound in the ears of men who had come so far to carry away one of the heaviest things under the sun.

The Colonel and the Boy took no tent, no stove, not even a miner’s pick and pan. These last, General Lighter had said, could be obtained at Minook; and “there isn’t a cabin on the trail,” Dillon had added, “without ’em.”

For the rest, the carefully-selected pack on the sled contained the marmot-skin, woollen blankets, a change of flannels apiece, a couple of sweaters, a Norfolk jacket, and several changes of foot-gear. This last item was dwelt on earnestly by all. “Keep your feet dry,” John Dillon had said, “and leave the rest to God Almighty.” They were taking barely two weeks’ rations, and a certain amount of stuff to trade with the up-river Indians, when their supplies should be gone. They carried a kettle, an axe, some quinine, a box of the carbolic ointment all miners use for foot-soreness, O’Flynn’s whisky, and two rifles and ammunition. In spite of having eliminated many things that most travellers would count essential, they found their load came to a little over two hundred pounds. But every day would lessen it, they told each other with a laugh, and with an inward misgiving, lest the lightening should come all too quickly.

They had seen in camp that winter so much of the frailty of human temper that, although full of faith by now in each other’s native sense and fairness, they left nothing to a haphazard division of labour. They parcelled out the work of the day with absolute impartiality. To each man so many hours of going ahead to break trail, if the snow was soft, while the other dragged the sled; or else while one pulled in front, the other pushed from behind, in regular shifts by the watch, turn and turn about. The Colonel had cooked all winter, so it was the Boy’s turn at that–the Colonel’s to decide the best place to camp, because it was his affair to find seasoned wood for fuel, his to build the fire in the snow on green logs laid close together–his to chop enough wood to cook breakfast the next morning. All this they had arranged before they left the Big Chimney.

That they did not cover more ground that first day was a pure chance, not likely to recur, due to an unavoidable loss of time at Pymeut.

Knowing the fascination that place exercised over his companion, the Colonel called a halt about seven miles off from the Big Chimney, that they might quickly despatch a little cold luncheon they carried in their pockets, and push on without a break till supper.

“We’ve got no time to waste at Pymeut,” observes the Colonel significantly.

“I ain’t achin’ to stop at Pymeut,” says his pardner with a superior air, standing up, as he swallowed his last mouthful of cold bacon and corn-bread, and cheerfully surveyed the waste. “Who says it’s cold, even if the wind is up? And the track’s bully. But see here, Colonel, you mustn’t go thinkin’ it’s smooth glare-ice, like this, all the way.”

“Oh, I was figurin’ that it would be.” But the Boy paid no heed to the irony.

“And it’s a custom o’ the country to get the wind in your face, as a rule, whichever way you go.”

“Well, I’m not complainin’ as yet.”

“Reckon you needn’t if you’re blown like dandelion-down all the way to Minook. Gee! the wind’s stronger! Say, Colonel, let’s rig a sail.”

“Foolishness.”

“No, sir. We’ll go by Pymeut in an ice-boat, lickety split. And it’ll be a good excuse for not stopping, though I think we ought to say good-bye to Nicholas.”

This view inclined the Colonel to think better of an ice-boat. He had once crossed the Bay of Toronto in that fashion, and began to wonder if such a mode of progression applied to sleds might not aid largely in solving the Minook problem.

While he was wondering the Boy unlashed the sled-load, and pulled off the canvas cover as the Colonel came back with his mast. Between them, with no better tools than axe, jack-knives, and a rope, and with fingers freezing in the south wind, they rigged the sail.

The fact that they had this increasingly favourable wind on their very first day showed that they were specially smiled on by the great natural forces. The superstitious feeling that only slumbers in most breasts, that Mother Nature is still a mysterious being, who has her favourites whom she guards, her born enemies whom she baulks, pursues, and finally overwhelms, the age-old childishness stirred pleasantly in both men, and in the younger came forth unabashed in speech:

“I tell you the omens are good! This expedition’s goin’ to get there.” Then, with the involuntary misgiving that follows hard upon such boasting, he laughed uneasily and added, “I mean to sacrifice the first deer’s tongue I don’t want myself, to Yukon Inua; but here’s to the south wind!” He turned some corn-bread crumbs out of his pocket, and saw, delighted, how the gale, grown keener, snatched eagerly at them and hurried them up the trail. The ice-boat careened and strained eagerly to sail away. The two gold-seekers, laughing like schoolboys, sat astride the pack; the Colonel shook out the canvas, and they scudded off up the river like mad. The great difficulty was the steering; but it was rip-roaring fun, the Boy said, and very soon there were natives running down to the river, to stare open-mouthed at the astounding apparition, to point and shout something unintelligible that sounded like “Muchtaravik!”

“Why, it’s the Pymeuts! Pardner, we’ll be in Minook by supper-ti–“

The words hadn’t left his lips when he saw, a few yards in front of them, a faint cloud of steam rising up from the ice–that dim danger-signal that flies above an air-hole. The Colonel, never noticing, was heading straight for the ghastly trap.

“God, Colonel! Blow-hole!” gasped the Boy.

The Colonel simply rolled off the pack turning over and over on the ice, but keeping hold of the rope.

The sled swerved, turned on her side, and slid along with a sound of snapping and tearing.

While they were still headed straight for the hole, the Boy had gathered himself for a clear jump to the right, but the sled’s sudden swerve to the left broke his angle sharply. He was flung forward on the new impetus, spun over the smooth surface, swept across the verge and under the cloud, clutching wildly at the ragged edge of ice as he went down.

All Pymeut had come rushing pell-mell.

The Colonel was gathering himself up and looking round in a dazed kind of way as Nicholas flashed by. Just beyond, in that yawning hole, fully ten feet wide by fifteen long, the Boy’s head appeared an instant, and then was lost like something seen in a dream. Some of the Pymeuts with quick knives were cutting the canvas loose. One end was passed to Nicholas; he knotted it to his belt, and went swiftly, but gingerly, forward nearer the perilous edge. He had flung himself down on his stomach just as the Boy rose again. Nicholas lurched his body over the brink, his arms outstretched, straining farther, farther yet, till it seemed as if only the counterweight of the rest of the population at the other end of the canvas prevented his joining the Boy in the hole. But Nicholas had got a grip of him, and while two of the Pymeuts hung on to the half-stunned Colonel to prevent his adding to the complication, Nicholas, with a good deal of trouble in spite of Yagorsha’s help, hauled the Boy out of the hole and dragged him up on the ice-edge. The others applied themselves lustily to their end of the canvas, and soon they were all at a safe distance from the yawning danger.

The Boy’s predominant feeling had been one of intense surprise. He looked round, and a hideous misgiving seized him.

“Anything the matter with you, Colonel?” His tone was so angry that, as they stared at each other, they both fell to laughing.

“Well, I rather thought that was what _I_ was going to say”; and Kentucky heaved a deep sigh of relief.

The Boy’s teeth began to chatter, and his clothes were soon freezing on him. They got him up off the ice, and Nicholas and the sturdy old Pymeut story-teller, Yagorsha, walked him, or ran him rather, the rest of the way to Pymeut, for they were not so near the village as the travellers had supposed on seeing nearly the whole male population. The Colonel was not far behind, and several of the bucks were bringing the disabled sled. Before reaching the Kachime, they were joined by the women and children, Muckluck much concerned at the sight of her friend glazed in ice from head to heel. Nicholas and Yagorsha half dragged, half pulled him into the Kachime. The entire escort followed, even two or three very dirty little boys–everybody, except the handful of women and girls left at the mouth of the underground entrance and the two men who had run on to make a fire. It was already smoking viciously as though the seal-lamps weren’t doing enough in that line, when Yagorsha and Nicholas laid the half-frozen traveller on the sleeping-bench.

The Pymeuts knew that the great thing was to get the ice-stiffened clothes off as quickly as might be, and that is to be done expeditiously only by cutting them off. In vain the Boy protested. Recklessly they sawed and cut and stripped him, rubbed him and wrapped him in a rabbit-blanket, the fur turned inside, and a wolverine skin over that. The Colonel at intervals poured small doses of O’Flynn’s whisky down the Boy’s throat in spite of his unbecoming behaviour, for he was both belligerent and ungrateful, complaining loudly of the ruin of his clothes with only such intermission as the teeth-chattering, swallowing, and rude handling necessitated.

“I didn’t like–bein’ in–that blow-hole. (Do you know–it was so cold–it burnt!) But I’d rather–be–in a blow-hole–than–br-r-r! Blow-hole isn’t so s-s-melly as these s-s-kins!’

“You better be glad you’ve got a whole skin of your own and ain’t smellin’ brimstone,” said the Colonel, pouring a little more whisky down the unthankful throat. “Pretty sort o’ Klondyker you are–go and get nearly drowned first day out!” Several Pymeut women came in presently and joined the men at the fire, chattering low and staring at the Colonel and the Boy.

“I can’t go–to the Klondyke–naked–no, nor wrapped in a rabbit-skin–like Baby Bunting–“

Nicholas was conferring with the Colonel and offering to take him to Ol’ Chief’s.

“Oh, yes; Ol’ Chief got two clo’es. You come. Me show”; and they crawled out one after the other.

“You pretty near dead that time,” said one of the younger women conversationally.

“That’s right. Who are you, anyway?”

“Me Anna–Yagorsha’s daughter.”

“Oh, yes, I thought I’d seen you before.” She seemed to be only a little older than Muckluck, but less attractive, chiefly on account of her fat and her look of ill-temper. She was on specially bad terms with a buck they called Joe, and they seemed to pass all their time abusing one another.

The Boy craned his neck and looked round. Except just where he was lying, the Pymeut men and women were crowded together, on that side of the Kachime, at his head and at his feet, thick as herrings on a thwart. They all leaned forward and regarded him with a beady-eyed sympathy. He had never been so impressed by the fact before, but all these native people, even in their gentlest moods, frowned in a chronic perplexity and wore their wide mouths open. He reflected that he had never seen one that didn’t, except Muckluck.

Here she was, crawling in with a tin can.

“Got something there to eat?”

The rescued one craned his head as far as he could.

“Too soon,” she said, showing her brilliant teeth in the fire-light. She set the tin down, looked round, a little embarrassed, and stirred the fire, which didn’t need it.

“Well”–he put his chin down under the rabbit-skin once more–“how goes the world, Princess?”

She flashed her quick smile again and nodded reassuringly. “You stay here now?”

“No; goin’ up river.”

“What for?” She spoke disapprovingly.

“Want to get an Orange Grove.”

“Find him up river?”

“Hope so.”

“I think I go, too”; and all the grave folk, sitting so close on the sleeping-bench, stretched their wide mouths wider still, smiling good-humouredly.

“You better wait till summer.”

“Oh!” She lifted her head from the fire as one who takes careful note of instructions. “Nex’ summer?”

“Well, summer’s the time for squaws to travel.”

“I come nex’ summer,” she said.

By-and-by Nicholas returned with a new parki and a pair of wonderful buckskin breeches–not like anything worn by the Lower River natives, or by the coast-men either: well cut, well made, and handsomely fringed down the outside of the leg where an officer’s gold stripe goes.

“Chaparejos!” screamed the Boy. “Where’d you get ’em?”

“Ol’ Chief–he ketch um.”

“They’re _bully!_” said the Boy, holding the despised rabbit-skin under his chin with both hands, and craning excitedly over it. He felt that his fortunes were looking up. Talk about a tide in the affairs of men! Why, a tide that washes up to a wayfarer’s feet a pair o’ chaparejos like that–well! legs so habited would simply _have_ to carry a fella on to fortune. He lay back on the sleeping-bench with dancing eyes, while the raw whisky hummed in his head. In the dim light of seal-lamps vague visions visited him of stern and noble chiefs out of the Leather Stocking Stories of his childhood–men of daring, whose legs were invariably cased in buck-skin with dangling fringes. But the dashing race was not all Indian, nor all dead. Famous cowboys reared before him on bucking bronchos, their leg-fringes streaming on the blast, and desperate chaps who held up coaches and potted Wells Fargo guards. Anybody must needs be a devil of a fellow who went about in “shaps,” as his California cousins called chaparejos. Even a peaceable fella like himself, not out after gore at all, but after an Orange Grove–even he, once he put on–He laughed out loud at his childishness, and then grew grave. “Say, Nicholas, what’s the tax?”

“Hey?”

“How much?”

“Oh, your pardner–he pay.”

“Humph! I s’pose I’ll know the worst on settlin’-day.”

Then, after a few moments, making a final clutch at economy before the warmth and the whisky subdued him altogether:

“Say, Nicholas, have you got–hasn’t the Ol’ Chief got any–less glorious breeches than those?”

“Hey?”

“Anything little cheaper?”

“Nuh,” says Nicholas.

The Boy closed his eyes, relieved on the whole. Fate had a mind to see him in chaparejos. Let her look to the sequel, then!

When consciousness came back it brought the sound of Yagorsha’s yarning by the fire, and the occasional laugh or grunt punctuating the eternal “Story.”

The Colonel was sitting there among them, solacing himself by adding to the smoke that thickened the stifling air.

Presently the Story-teller made some shrewd hit, that shook the Pymeut community into louder grunts of applause and a general chuckling. The Colonel turned his head slowly, and blew out a fresh cloud: “Good joke?”

In the pause that fell thereafter, Yagorsha, imperturbable, the only one who had not laughed, smoothed his lank, iron-gray locks down on either side of his wide face, and went on renewing the sinew open-work in his snow-shoe.

“When Ol’ Chief’s father die–“

All the Pymeuts chuckled afresh. The Boy listened eagerly. Usually Yagorsha’s stories were tragic, or, at least, of serious interest, ranging from bereaved parents who turned into wolverines, all the way to the machinations of the Horrid Dwarf and the Cannibal Old Woman.

The Colonel looked at Nicholas. He seemed as entertained as the rest, but quite willing to leave his family history in professional hands.

“Ol’ Chief’s father, Glovotsky, him Russian,” Yagorsha began again, laying down his sinew-thread a moment and accepting some of the Colonel’s tobacco.

“I didn’t know you had any white blood in you,” interrupted the Colonel, offering his pouch to Nicholas. “I might have suspected Muckluck–“

“Heap got Russian blood,” interrupted Joe.

As the Story-teller seemed to be about to repeat the enlivening tradition concerning the almost mythical youth of Ol’ Chief’s father, that subject of the great Katharine’s, whose blood was flowing still in Pymeut veins, just then in came Yagorsha’s daughter with some message to her father. He grunted acquiescence, and she turned to go. Joe called something after her, and she snapped back. He jumped up to bar her exit. She gave him a smart cuff across the eyes, which surprised him almost into the fire, and while he was recovering his equilibrium she fled. Yagorsha and all the Pymeuts laughed delightedly at Joe’s discomfiture.

The Boy had been obliged to sit up to watch this spirited encounter. The only notice the Colonel took of him was to set the kettle on the fire. While he was dining his pardner gathered up the blankets and crawled out.

“Comin’ in half a minute,” the Boy called after him. The answer was swallowed by the tunnel.

“Him go say goo’-bye Ol’ Chief,” said Nicholas, observing how the Colonel’s pardner was scalding himself in his haste to despatch a